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Tom Rasberry

“Crazy” ants come to Austin

They’re on the move.

Hello, Austin!

There’s a new ant in town, and wherever it goes, fire ants start disappearing. It also doesn’t sting or bite. But don’t get excited yet. The Rasberry crazy ant which showed up in Travis County and Round Rock this fall swarms into homes by the hundreds of thousands in search of food.

In the Houston area, where the ants are much more prevalent, they have already made some homeowners miserable, said Roger Gold, professor of entomology at Texas A&M University.

“People that have them said they wish they had the fire ants back,” he said. “We have pictures of families sweeping them up with brooms where there are piles of ants. … They can get into AC systems and short them out.”

When the ants get electrocuted they produce a pheromone that causes other ants to rush in, Gold said, leading to so many ants in the electrical system that it shorts out. An infestation of the ants temporarily shut down a Pasadena chemical plant, causing a $1 million loss, he said.

“They have huge populations made up of hundreds of thousands to multiple millions,” Gold said.

Ed LeBrun, a research associate at the University of Texas’ Brackenridge Field Laboratory, said the crazy ants haven’t caused Central Texas the problems that have been seen in the Houston area, where they were discovered in Pasadena in 2002 by exterminator Tom Rasberry.

Not yet, anyway. See here, here, here, and here for more. The map on the sidebar of the story shows that the ants have been sighted in Travis, Williamson, and Bexar counties, but not in counties in between them and the Houston area. Seems to me that means they just haven’t been spotted, not that they’re not there. At this point, it’s just a matter of time before the take over the state. Brace yourselves.

“Crazy ants” update

The march of the so-called “crazy ants” continues unabated.

It sounds like a horror movie: Biting ants invade by the millions. A camper’s metal walls bulge from the pressure of ants nesting behind them. A circle of poison stops them for only a day, and then a fresh horde shows up, bringing babies. Stand in the yard, and in seconds ants cover your shoes.

It’s an extreme example of what can happen when the ants — which also can disable huge industrial plants — go unchecked. Controlling them can cost thousands of dollars. But the story is real, told by someone who’s been studying ants for a decade.

“Months later, I could close my eyes and see them moving,” said Joe MacGown, who curates the ant, mosquito and scarab collections at the Mississippi State Entomological Museum at Mississippi State University.

He’s been back to check on the hairy crazy ants. They’re still around. The occupant isn’t.

The flea-sized critters are called crazy because each forager scrambles randomly at a speed that your average picnic ant, marching one by one, reaches only in video fast-forward. They’re called hairy because of fuzz that, to the naked eye, makes their abdomens look less glossy than those of their slower, bigger cousins.

And they’re on the move in Florida, Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana. In Texas, they’ve invaded homes and industrial complexes, urban areas and rural areas. They travel in cargo containers, hay bales, potted plants, motorcycles and moving vans. They overwhelm beehives — one Texas beekeeper was losing 100 a year in 2009. They short out industrial equipment.

[…]

The ants are probably native to South America, MacGown said. But they were recorded in the Caribbean by the late 19th century, said Jeff Keularts, an extension associate professor at the University of the Virgin Islands. That’s how they got the nickname “Caribbean crazy ants.” They’ve also become known as Rasberry crazy ants, after the exterminator.

Now they’re making their way through parts of the Southeast. Florida had the ants in about five counties in 2000 but today is up to 20, MacGown said. Nine years after first being spotted in Texas, that state now has them in 18 counties. So far, they have been found in two counties in Mississippi and at least one Louisiana parish.

See here, here, and here for more. Note in that last link that as of 2009, only 11 counties had reported being invaded by the crazy ants. I don’t know about you, but I find that unsettling.

“Crazy ants” becoming a bigger menace

You may recall hearing about the “crazy ants”, also known as Rasberry ants, last year. They’re apparently gaining a large foothold in Texas and other states, and are threatening honeybees wherever they go.

The range of the so-called Rasberry crazy ant has more than doubled in the past year, creating a swath in 11 counties beginning near Houston and moving north, scientists say.

Given the ant’s encroachment on livestock, hay bales and a few honeybee farms, some are trying to classify it as an agricultural pest, one that must soon be stopped.

“It really is spreading at an alarming rate and we need to do research now,” said Danny McDonald, a Texas A&M University doctoral student who is examining the tiny creature’s biology and ecology. “There’s no time to wait.”

But serious research requires serious dollars.

The Texas Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Agriculture will fund in-depth research on the Rasberry crazy ant, but only if it gets the pest classification. And to do that, state officials say more research must be done. It’s a sticky Catch-22.

“This is absolutely idiotic,” said Tom Rasberry, the exterminator for whom the ant is named because he fought against them early on. “If killing honeybees does not put it in the ag pest category I don’t know what does.”

[…]

The ants — formally known as “paratrenicha species near pubens” — are called “crazy” because they wander erratically instead of marching in regimented lines. Although they eat stinging fire ants, they also feed on beneficial insects such as ladybugs and honeybees.

The USDA’s Agriculture Research Service recently released about $30,000 for a yearlong study by Texas AgriLife Extension Service and A&M’s Center for Urban & Structural Entomology to determine how quickly the ants are spreading.

“Our folks know this is a very serious issue and we’re jumping on it to make sure we find a solution very quickly,” said Bryan Black, Texas Department of Agriculture spokesman. “We want to protect agriculture and we want to protect the public, absolutely.”

Critics say the initial study won’t address the ant’s food preferences, reproduction cycles, lifespan, temperature tolerance or effect on wildlife.

“There are literally thousands of things we need to find out to get on a fast track, otherwise we’re going to do just like we did with the fire ant and wait until it was too late,” Rasberry warned.

I sure hope that’s not how it goes. If money is an issue I would hope that this is the sort of thing that can get bipartisan cooperation and thus done relatively easily. Who wants to be pro-ant?